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Not Your Grandpa’s Military Surplus

On a chilly afternoon in February, Logan McGrath and Mack Fritz were preparing to shoot a video advertising the green Austrian army fatigue shirts they were selling on Americana Pipedream Apparel, the online military surplus store Mr. McGrath started out of his parents’ basement in Appleton, Wis., three years ago.

After outgrowing their last two locations and grabbing the attention of customers like the singer Post Malone, they had recently settled into a new venue: a onetime furniture showroom that was repurposed as a 24,000-square-foot warehouse. The large space was already filling up. Afghan war rugs were piled up in one corner. Tall laundry bins held hundreds of American military canteens and current-issue British camouflage uniforms and equipment. Cartons of energy drinks were stacked by the fridge.

More than a dozen employees, mostly in their early 20s and friends of Mr. McGrath’s from high school, crisscrossed the space on scooters, Segways and skateboards. They collected Greek camouflage jackets, West German military patches and packages of vanilla poundcakes from American military rations, assembling them for orders. In the back of the warehouse, they sorted through pallets of surplus that had arrived from as far as Indonesia and Pakistan, including about 1,500 grayish-green Austrian KAZ-75 field shirts.

Nearby Mr. McGrath and Mr. Fritz, both 21, worked on a video to market the shirts on their popular Instagram page. The two young men gathered around a folding table in Mr. Fritz’s office, the furniture business’s old paint studio, and scrolled through the script they were editing.

“Have you ever seen Austrian drip go this hard?” Mr. Fritz, wearing an orange down jacket, proposed.

Mr. McGrath, in a beanie and round Warby Parker eyeglasses, said “drip” was “played out, not exciting enough.”

But Mr. Fritz won him over.

They settled on “the Austrian KAZ-75 field shirt is where utility meets drip.” Outside, Mr. McGrath, modeling the outfit, delivered the line while Mr. Fritz recorded on a mounted digital camera.

Americana Pipedream is part of a wave of small online companies run by 20-somethings who deftly use social media to sell military surplus — or “surp,” as they call it. Fueled by a zany and self-consciously Gen Z marketing strategy on Instagram and TikTok, the young men behind the business said their sales surpassed $6 million last year and their staff of 22 filled an average of 11,000 orders a month.

Mr. Fritz and Mr. McGrath are friendly with the owners of shops like Covey Surplus, Misty Mountain Supply, Kruschiki Supply Company and the slightly older Kommando Store, shops that take a similar approach to business and, like Americana Pipedream, mainly serve a young customer base that may have never set foot in an Army Navy surplus store. Many of those brick-and-mortar shops have been on a steady decline for years and are often associated with dark, dusty backrooms piled high with smelly canvas and imitation gear.

“A lot of your traditional stores that you used to see back in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, even early 2000s, that were just military surplus — those stores have started to go to the wayside,” said Kyle MacNall, the director of operations of the Army Navy Military Expo Trade Show.

Surplus stores exploded in the United States after World War II. The government had $34 billion of surplus material at the end of the war and sold it in large lots at auctions, where would-be store owners could buy a whole shop’s worth of inventory.

The result was a boom in surplus stores selling everything from boots and compasses to folding chairs and jackets, first catering to blue-collar workers and outdoorsmen and then eventually to students and young people. During the 1960s and ’70s, surplus store style was identified with the country’s countercultural movements and became a staple in American style.

But as military surplus from the war dried up, so did American surplus stores. Looking farther afield, some were able to buoy their stocks with new material coming out of former Soviet Bloc countries, but the downturn had already set in. Now, there is a resurgence afoot.

“We all kind of talk to each other,” said Weston Covey, the 25-year-old owner of Covey Surplus, based in Nevada, Mo. “I think there’s about 12 to 15 stores that I actually made a group chat for, and we all talk about suppliers and issues we have.”

Mr. McGrath and Aiden Olson, who have been friends since middle school, said that they fell into surplus almost by accident.

It was January 2021, and Mr. McGrath had moved back home to Appleton, a small town along a river known for its paper mills, after dropping out of Gettysburg College after one semester. He and Mr. Olson, 22, both graduated high school in 2020, at the height of Covid remote learning, and college was not what they had been expecting. But back in Appleton, Mr. McGrath said, “I was bored. I was broke.”

Restless, Mr. McGrath started looking for products he could buy wholesale and sell, and Mr. Olson, who was studying business at a local technical school and working at Best Buy, joined him as a co-founder.

Their first big purchase was 3,000 Belgian police navy blue balaclavas. They asked Mr. Fritz, who had a camera and liked taking videos, to record them in Mr. McGrath’s parents’ driveway.

They thought Americana Pipedream would be a “side business,” said Mr. Olson, who admitted that he didn’t have much interest in surplus or military history at first. Mr. McGrath, meanwhile, had been posting historical military images he found online to an Instagram account with more than 100,000 followers that he started as a high school freshman.

“We leaned into it because it was history adjacent, and we could tell stories about the product we sold,” he said.

And they had a larger, familiar story they wanted to tell with their enterprise.

“I think the core of it is just that even today, with all the various challenges that people face, especially in the aftermath of rampant inflation and Covid, that you can still achieve things that are fantastic,” Mr. McGrath said. “Be someone who can start something of their own and not have to work for someone else.”

Mr. McGrath and his business partners take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the surplus they sell. While some shops emphasize the tactical capacities of their gear, the Americana Pipedream founders mostly fill their Instagram page with D.I.Y. graphics and riffs on viral memes in the style of Throwing Fits or Blackbird Spyplane.

In one meme, they suggest that a plastic vape could replace ammunition in the pouches of an equipment belt.

“I get the feeling they are a great group of people to work with and socialize with, and that helps for a customer,” said Brett Smith, a 27-year-old A.V. tech and food service worker in Charleston, W.Va., who recently bought a German Flecktarn shirt from the shop.

Americana Pipedream also doesn’t shy away from firearms. When modeling a new product, like a U.S. Navy blue jumpsuit, Mr. McGrath may grab his personal plate carrier filled with magazines and a replica World War II British Sten submachine gun.

The young men of Americana Pipedream recently flew to Texas for a range day planned by two gun vloggers, Brandon Herrera, also known as the AK Guy, and Cody Garrett, who also goes by Donut Operator.

After a stop home to move into their new warehouse, Mr. McGrath, Mr. Olson and Mr. Fritz then headed to the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show and the Army Navy Military Expo, both in Las Vegas. They met up with old friends and wholesalers, sourced products and attended some of the industry’s over-the-top events — like a Chernobyl-themed party hosted by Crye Precision, the tactical uniform and equipment manufacturer.

Many people drawn to Americana Pipedream’s gear will very likely be on the political right. “It’s military surplus,” Mr. McGrath said. “You’re going to get that.” But he and Mr. Olson said they didn’t want to become too closely associated with any one political position, and they didn’t totally feel at home at the gatherings.

“I think we definitely overstayed how long we would want to stay in Vegas,” Mr. Olson said, adding, “It’s not really my cup of tea.”

Mr. Olson and Mr. McGrath would much rather be in Appleton. Both love their hometown, pointing out landmarks like their local parish church (same as the senator Joseph McCarthy’s) and recounting local lore. If he had more free time, Mr. McGrath said he would probably be camping along the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin or waterfowl hunting.

Americana Pipedream may soon get more hands to lighten the load. Mr. McGrath said he was planning on hiring more of his friends. He wants to run a business that isn’t “this draconian Amazon environment that makes everyone terribly unhappy and depressed,” he said.

He and Mr. Olson have created a quarterly bonus based on sales that they distribute to everyone at the company in a kind of profit-sharing system. They’re thinking of adding some other perks, too, like a gym and sauna for their work space.

Back at the warehouse, a new shipment of surplus had just arrived. A container of Austrian, Slovenian and Italian material had made its way to Appleton after a stop at an Italian port, a trip across the Atlantic and a ride on a truck from Chicago.

The warehouse doesn’t yet have a proper driveway for an eighteen-wheeler, but after some convincing, the truck driver maneuvered the 40-foot container as close to the loading area as possible. But then the Americana Pipedream gang realized that no one had a bolt cutter to break the container’s metal seal. Mr. Olson was dispatched to a hardware store down the street.

With time to kill, the truck driver, a man in white Fila sneakers and black track pants, seemed to notice how young Mr. McGrath and the employees ready to unload the truck looked.

“What do you guys do here?” he asked, and Mr. McGrath explained.

The truck driver nodded, still a bit puzzled.

“I like this stuff,” he said. “Everyone likes this stuff.”

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